Words: Ben Spurrier
I like old bikes, old cars, I like paraphernalia with heritage. I like things which are designed and built now, like it was then, when things were built to last. I like to pick up old parts where you can see the marks from manufacture, created by a human hand. And so I was off to Italy for the annual L'Eroica vintage bike race fast than I could wrap a tub around my shoulders and polish my Brooks leather saddle.
In Italy between June and September, one cannot buy vintage bike parts. Why? Because peddlers of old bits and bobs will be able to safely hike the prices of their wares to sell to those who have made the trip to Chianti, Tuscany for L'Eroica - hoping to find that one component to complete their look, or bike.
So, true to form, Gaiole in Chianti transformed into a sprawling vintage bike fest full of people tinkering with their machines, rummaging through boxes that smell like the back of your grandma's loft, probably because they have come from the back of someone's Grandma's loft.
There were vintage cars, motorbikes, and more bikes than I've ever seen in one place. The Saturday night in Gaiole became a raucous affair. Guests of the ride itself are all shoehorned into a vast marquee and plied with huge amounts of Chiante and pork. This year, Francesco Moser was in attendance, as was his somewhat vocal fan club who added a 'musical' soundtrack to the evening. It was a good start to a weekend that celebrates the vintage, the peculiar and the golden age of cycling.
Angel Vila and I rode the 75km route. Him on a curly Hetchins and me on an original 50's Paris Galibier with 1961 Simplex Juy 4 speed. With my smallest gear 51x20t made the climbs progressively harder work as the day unfolded. One thing I didn't realize was that Tuscany isn't a pan flat region of Italy either...
There were 4 feed stops on our route, one unofficial. Once you have broken the back of the first section of the ride, the stops come nice and frequently. Instead of being piled with cola and energy food, there was bread in olive oil, bread in red wine, grapes, water or chiante. We were lucky enough to arrive at one stop at the same time as the old-timer who wears No.1 who chatted to us briefly. His bike is from 1905, it's a fixed wheel and has a front brake. The brake is an original death trap and slows the rider down by pushing a block onto the top of the tyre, resisting it from spinning freely.. He was 69 and worryingly for us, arrived at the next stop only about 5mins after we got there.
My attire was as close as I could get to a 1950s Paris team rider - Ray Ban Aviators, a cloth casquete, a woolen jersey, original woolen Condor Mackeson shorts and leather Quoc Pham shoes. It was also my first time riding a Brooks saddle which was simply amazing, perhaps owing to the fact that someone else had spent many years breaking in the leather for me.
Our bikes were absolutely superb. When we were in London, we scoffed at our larger tyres, slow acceleration and drilled flexible chainrings, but the moment they touched Tuscan gravel it was as though they sensed they were in their spiritual home.
It turns out, the Italians will let you do the ride if your steed doesn't meet the regulations. But turn up at the finish to get your completion card stamp and if they don't like the look of your ride, you will be turned away.
Not if, but when I go back, I will:
- Build my own bike, way in advance. Maybe with some nice wide moustache bars for extra leverage on the steep climbs.
- Buy a little leather helmet from the market because as ineffectual as they are, it's better than nothing.
- Work on a halfway efficient toeclip system - save on the pulped big toes.
- Definitely ride a double chainset with a small inner ring.